Asia's Next Flashpoint?


For more than a decade, villagers in the remote foothills of the rugged Dangrek Mountains saw brisk business from tourism as local Cambodians and Thais struck friendly cross-border deals that gave tourists access to the fabled temple at Preah Vihear.

Vendors sold the simple stuff–bottled water and cans of coke to the thirsty–as well as wood carvings and trinkets that resembled the 11th century ruins. This convivial trade went on against a backdrop of monks in saffron robes endlessly plodding up and down the crumbling staircases.

The warm ties that existed were also a business necessity.

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Perched on a steep cliff, Preah Vihear has majestic views that stretch for miles across Cambodia’s tropical landscape. It also sits a comfortable 700 metres inside Cambodian territory, despite access into the complex being directed from the Phra Viham National Park on the Thai side of the border, where Western and Asian travellers enjoy facilities on par with the first world and can be bussed-up a gentle incline on wide paved roads in air-conditioned comfort to the temple’s gates.

Access was convenient and villagers shared the spoils that were only made possible by the end of conflicts that had bedeviled Cambodia for the last three decades of the 20th century.

That was until a firestorm erupted under the guise of a dispute over sovereignty.

‘Business was good,’ says one vendor on the steps of the main chamber. ‘We worked well with the authorities and with the Cambodians, everybody made a living but now it’s a mess.’

The furore first erupted after the United Nations granted the temple World Heritage status in mid-2008. The Thais were incensed, and troops were dispatched across the border. Bloody confrontations followed amid diplomatic efforts to resolve the dispute peacefully.

And, until recently, those efforts seemed to be gaining some traction. But increasingly recalcitrant politicians and bloody-minded protestors have seized on the historical significance of this tiny outpost to push their own ambitious agendas.

Thousands of Yellow Shirts, supporters of Thailand’s People’s Alliance for Democracy (PAD), took the tourist route here, determined to take back what they say is theirs. They are equally determined that ousted premier Thaksin Shinawatra will only return to Thailand in handcuffs.

Fearing a repeat of their earlier, sometimes violent, exploits, Thai officials shut down the area and politely turned the Yellow Shirts away.

Meanwhile, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen–the region’s longest serving leader–seemed set on inflaming tensions further by offering Thaksin, a convicted fugitive whose former policies surrounding Preah Vihear have raised more than eyebrows, a home in Cambodia.

Thailand recalled its ambassador and Cambodia followed suit.

Hun Sen proceeded to add some grist to his reputation as Cambodia’s ‘strongman’ and ordered his troops, Brigade 8, stationed at the temple alongside the Thais, to shoot on sight anyone seen crossing illegally into Cambodian territory.

He also offered Thaksin a job as an economics advisor, prompting Bangkok to retaliate by tearing-up hard-won agreements over oil exploration rights in the Gulf of Siam. Thai newspapers derided Hun Sen, as a ‘Big Bully’ and for his ‘lack of class and tact.’

‘It’s easy to see why Thaksin would want to locate himself in Cambodia–it’s a much better base for him from which to maintain his connections in Thailand than, say, Dubai,’ says Greg Barton, a professor of Southeast Asian Studies at Monash University in Melbourne.

‘Short of an actual return to Thailand this is arguably the next best thing for him,’ he says.

But the recent flare-up over Preah Vihear is only part of the story. The real problem is rooted in the colourful relationships between politicians who have upset senior brass within the Thai military at a time of rising national concern over the monarchy.

‘It’s an emotional choice,’ says Chheang Vannarith, Executive Director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace (CICP) on the move by Hun Sen to reach out to Thaksin. ‘The friendships are far more important than rational calculations.’

Hun Sen and Thaksin share both a close personal friendship and a mutual loathing of Thailand’s current premier, Abhisit Vejjajiva.

‘It started at the personal level but has since been elevated into the political sphere,’ Chheang says.

Complicating relations between the two nations is the international boundary that separates the two countries.

The border was finalized by Siam and Cambodia’s colonial ruler, France, in 1908. However, Bangkok never really reconciled itself to the loss of Preah Vihear.

More important than the temple, though, is the surrounding real estate–a slice of land, most of which is only a few hundred metres wide, isolated by the 800 kilometre border on one side and sky scraping cliffs on the other. This is the military high ground looming over Cambodia the Thai military always wanted to control.

Thailand sided with Japan in World War II and grabbed what it wanted from Cambodia and Laos, including Preah Vihear and the much grander temples of Angkor Wat.

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